- REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
- The record number of fires consuming Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has prompted demands from around the world for drastic action.
- But Brazil’s leaders have pushed back, both downplaying the seriousness of the fires and insisting that it is an issue for Brazil alone to manage.
- Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said world leaders were showing a “colonialist mentality” in trying to offer funds to help.
- Brazil has in the past worried that other countries may try to seize it and deny it the use of its resources – a narrative Bolsonaro has used and is evoking once more.
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The record number of fires raging across the Amazon has sparked an international outcry as world leaders express concern for the future of the world’s largest rainforest.
But in Brazil, politicians are defiant, downplaying the extent of the fires and calling international warnings “sensationalist.” Their response has been to tell other countries to stop telling Brazil what to do.
Sixty percent of the Amazon is within Brazil’s borders. Using it for industry was part of the platform that propelled President Jair Bolsonaro to victory, after a campaign that repeatedly characterized the Amazon as a resource to be exploited.
He is now rebuking international calls for action over the fires, accusing leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron of having a “colonialist mentality” by offering money to help.
- CARLOS FABAL/AFP/Getty Images
Responses to Macron reveal an attitude among some Brazilians that other countries should stay out of a domestic issue.
On social media, Brazil-linked accounts told Macron that “the Amazon is ours, let us take care of it” and that “the Amazon rainforest belongs to the Brazilian people and it is under our sovereignty.”
The Amazon is ours, let us take care of it. Use your time to take care of your Islamization country, France will fall and it will not be long.
— Cássio Neves לואיז (@cassionevesc) August 22, 2019
IT IS NOT YOUR'S HOME! The Amazon rainforest belongs to the Brazilian people and it is under our sovereignty. Amazon is my people's house and it will always be. Europe is destined to sucumb to infamy and shame while Brazil will enrich from Amazon's vast natural resources.
— Manoel Gontijo (@manoelmsgontijo) August 22, 2019
These ideas explain why Bolsonaro and many Brazilians have been defensive amid outcry over harm to the Amazon.
Brazilians might see environmentalism as a ploy to hold Brazil back
Most of the fires in the Amazon have been started by humans, either accidentally or on purpose by logging and farming companies, which have been emboldened by Bolsonaro’s stance on development in the region.
During his campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to build a highway through the forest and power plants within it.
He has sought to reduce environmental protections and reallocate land and resources pledged to indigenous tribes. He also threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris agreement on climate change. During his campaign, he said environmental legislation was “suffocating” the economy.
Anthony Pereira, the director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London, told Business Insider that some people viewed a decision not to develop parts of the Amazon as one that holds Brazil back.
“There are people, especially among the 20 million people who live in the Amazon, who think: ‘Environmentalism has gone too far, we need to make a living, these regulations are too onerous, there’s too much land set aside for the indigenous, and we want to go in and deforest, whether it’s for land speculation, for agriculture, for pasture, or logging,'” he said.
- REUTERS/Ranu Abhelakh
Bolsonaro, he said, might be of this mindset and could view attempts at influence from other governments or from nongovernmental organizations as attempts to hold Brazil back economically or interfere with its sovereignty.
“He’s a product of the 1970s and the military regime, when that view was very prevalent, and he could have that kind of view that people are out to get Brazil, to stifle its agriculture,” Pereira said.
Par Engstrom, a human-rights lecturer at University College London’s Institute of the Americas, told Business Insider that there was “ongoing concern among Brazilian elites that the world is unfriendly and does not have Brazil’s interests at heart.”
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is “actually not that extreme in Brazil’s history,” Engstrom said, and represents “quite a strong strand of Brazil’s thinking and Brazil’s thoughts about its place in the world.”
Bolsonaro’s approach to foreign policy so far has centered on the idea that “there is a globalist conspiracy against countries like Brazil,” Engstrom said.
However, opinion in Brazil is not united on the issue. Pereira said Bolsonaro’s view was likely not the majority position.
“We have to keep in mind: Most Brazilians live a long way from the Amazon rainforest, and they are as appalled as everyone else,” he said.
Pushback against Bolsonaro in Brazil has been clear. Former environment ministers wrote an open letter in May denouncing Bolsonaro’s Amazon policies, and thousands of Brazilians marched over the weekend to urge government action about the fires.
- REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Pereira pointed to a survey this month in which 96% of respondents said they agreed with the statement “President Jair Bolsonaro and the federal government should increase enforcement measures to prevent illegal deforestation in the Amazon.”
The survey found the same result among Bolsonaro voters and opposition voters.
“So we can say that Bolsonaro got a majority in his election in October, but I think it’s not right to say that, well, a majority approved of his positions on the environment, because the environment wasn’t the main thing that he was running on,” Pereira said.
He also said that the idea that Brazil “can only be a big agricultural superpower if it destroys the Amazon is completely false.”
He pointed to Brazil’s dramatic reduction in deforestation from 2004 to 2012, as the country’s “agribusiness exports were booming.”
- EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
“Also, a lot of the agriculture that gets done in the Amazon is very unproductive,” he said. “It’s pasture that lasts for a few years and then is exhausted.”
Brazil’s Embassy in the UK told Business Insider in a statement that protecting the Amazon “is a priority both for the Brazilian people and for the Brazilian Government.”
“It is our view that there is no necessary opposition between economic development and preservation of the environment,” the statement said.
Brazil is also defending its policies about the Amazon as an issue of national sovereignty
While arguing that the fires should not be a topic of discussion during the G7 summit, Bolsonaro accused other countries of “interfering with our sovereignty.”
His officials continued to emphasize the country’s independence over the weekend and as they rejected the offer of $20 million from G7 countries, a figure that environmental campaigners called “chump change.”
Engstrom said it was “not surprising” that Brazil rejected the money – especially given that it was a decision made in Europe, without Brazil’s input, and a pretty small sum.
“Why on earth would a major economy like Brazil accept that?” he said.
If anything, he said, the G7’s response “played into Bolsonaro’s hands,” ignoring the pressure that many Latin American countries face to develop their forests and acting in a way that many Brazilians could see as “hypocritical.”
Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, also accused France of having a colonial attitude about the offer.
“Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron,” he said.
He also pointed to the fire that devastated Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral this year, saying, “Macron cannot even avoid a foreseeable fire in a church that is a World Heritage site.”
The rhetoric forced Macron to acknowledge Brazil’s independence while still emphasizing the importance of the Amazon, the majority of which is in Brazil, to the planet.
- Victor Moriyama/Getty Images
Eduardo Villas Boas, the former head of Brazil’s army, described the offers as “direct attacks on Brazilian sovereignty.”
Andreza De Souza Santos, the director of Oxford University’s Brazilian Studies Program, told Business Insider that Brazil’s former status as a Portuguese colony framed how it sees autonomy today.
Speaking via phone from the Amazon, she said that “Brazil has framed its national identity by emphasizing its status as a former colony, sort of creating a Brazilianness” that managed to include indigenous tribes with different languages, ethnic backgrounds, and traditions.
This idea has been leveraged, she said, to suggest that international concern for the Amazon “hurts Brazil’s autonomy,” an argument also used in Brazil to argue against international aid.
Engstrom said that “there has been a long-running concern in Brazil, and in the military in particular, over international efforts to exert control over the Amazon.”
- Maxar Technologies
A 2011 government survey found that 50% of Brazilians believed another country would invade Brazil and try to take the rainforest’s resources.
Brazil has also rankled at taking advice from Western countries that have over centuries depleted their own forests.
Of the $20 million offer from the G7 countries, Lorenzoni said that “maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe.”
Pereira said that “there’s some truth when they say things like two-thirds of Brazil’s original forest cover still exists and most European countries have deforested more than that over the years.”
- ERGIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
“They have preserved a lot of the rainforest, and there’s a lot of pride in Brazil about the fact that the Brazilian Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world,” he added.
Brazil’s Embassy in the UK said that Brazil was “proud to have 66% of our large territory – a territory that is 35 times the size of the UK – covered with native vegetation.”
“We have managed to both preserve our native vegetation and at the same time become an agricultural powerhouse,” it said. “In sum, we do believe economic activities can be developed, including in the Amazon, in a manner that does not harm the environment.”